The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents September 2014 Return to Table of Contents
Guardians of the Galaxy
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Emmy Awards
Presidents Desk
ASC Close-Up

Additionally, the art department constructed massive, 660-pound ring lights that could appear on camera as set pieces. Smith explains, “Each circle had nine Par 64 bulbs in it, and we clustered them together on electric motors below the soft boxes so we could take them up and down. When we were on a wide shot, we could drop them in to break the frame. They worked for a mid-ground, on-camera set piece as well as providing great light. We ran those lights at 25 percent, so they were really quite warm in terms of color temperature.”

Hoverbots, each sporting a searchlight, serve as prison guards in the Kyln, and although the bots themselves were CG visual effects, the searchlight gags were created in-camera with Philips Vari-Lites and 189-watt Clay Paky Sharpy moving fixtures. The lights were suspended around the set, and some were mounted on tracks for additional movement. “Panalux also made us a joystick so we could put a Sharpy on the end of a camera crane and manually point the light rather than [pre-program its movement],” says Smith. “We moved the crane and the light like you would a remote head.”

Various other tungsten-balanced lights were also rigged throughout the set. “The art department would make a shape, and we’d put a fixture inside it, whether it be a fluorescent, LED or Par can bulb,” says Smith. “We had about 8,000 DMX channels in there by the time we finished. Some of the fixtures we used were RGB LED so we could create different colors in areas, and some of them had 75 channels per fixture.”

Davis adds, “If [the actors] were being hit by colored light, we’d let it play. Color is really important in Guardians. You see a lot of space movies that are quite monochromatic, but we looked at a lot of images from the Hubble Telescope and were struck by how much color was in them. We’d sometimes use contrasting color to pull the talent away from the background. I generally tried to bring the flesh tones to something more normal with neutral key light.”

However, what qualified as a “normal” flesh tone was relative, considering the various hues of the film’s aliens, including the green-skinned Gamora. “I cannot tell you how many tests we did to get a shade of green makeup that we felt worked,” Davis recalls. “If we shot [Saldana] in a wide shot, she’d generally be half to two-thirds of a stop down from every other character in the scene — the green just absorbed the light. I would try to make sure she was closest to the key light in a scene or that it at least favored her. A lot of times I would have a Source Four Leko on her if I could put one in. In post, there was quite a bit of work to window her and pull her out.

“Unfortunately,” the cinematographer continues, “the green we came up with that was most photogenic was not far removed from chroma-key green. If we had time, we’d drop a bluescreen in behind her. But for visual effects — considering they were creating a walking, talking tree and a raccoon — keying Zoë off a greenscreen was probably the least of their problems!

“Even when we thought we weren’t shooting a visual-effects shot on one of our four-wall sets, we were reminded that we had two lead characters who are visual effects,” says Davis. “So almost every shot was a visual-effects shot. We had Sean Gunn [James’ brother] down on his knees in a blue suit playing Rocket. Groot didn’t have many lines, so we had a stick with a tennis ball on the end [to provide] an eyeline. We’d run a pass with those two, and then we’d do a pass without.”

The Guardians travel in Quill’s spaceship, the Milano, the interior of which was built onstage as a two-level set with a flight deck positioned above the lower living quarters, enabling the actors to move freely from one deck to another within a scene. The cockpit could be removed from the rest of the set and placed on a gimbal for battle sequences. Davis notes that the cockpit “was a compact set with a lot of characters in it. The idea was that it should light itself with practical lighting.”

Smith adds, “Everything [in the cockpit] was [primarily] fluorescent or LED, with barely any tungsten lamps — maybe the occasional Source Four or Dedolight to pick something out. Otherwise, we’d put in 2- or 3-foot T5 tubes and strips of LED ribbon run back to dimmers.”

For shots looking out from within the cockpit, its large, bowl-shaped glass canopy was left in place so that reflections of the Guardians could be captured. However, when the camera looked into the cockpit from outside, the canopy was removed in order to avoid unwanted reflections of equipment. (The greenscreen surrounding the cockpit was illuminated with Panalux FloBank fluorescents.)

Above the cockpit, for scenes when the Milano is in space, Smith and Davis employed a soft box of fluorescent Panalux HighLites through Full Grid dyed with 728 Steel Green. They also devised a number of interactive lighting elements to simulate the ship’s transition into the Earth-like, daylight atmosphere of Xandar, the utopian home of the Nova Corps.

“We built a horseshoe-shaped rig 21 feet high that went from one side [of the cockpit] to the other,” Smith explains. The cockpit, he adds, “was about 14 feet off the stage floor,” and the horseshoe rig incorporated a series of side-by-side 2'x2' Panalux TekTile 60 daylight LED panels. “We could chase those lights backwards and forwards to make it look like the cockpit was spinning,” the gaffer continues. “We also had TekTiles going along the top of the ship, so we were able to chase them as though the ship was going in a forward motion. Above that we had a roof of silked daylight fluorescent HighLites that we also chased to give a feeling of movement. On either side of the cockpit, we had 12 Martin Mac Viper Profile [moving fixtures], which we could swipe through to give us a little more movement. And above the ship we had Vari-Lites rigged to sweep across. My desk operator [Onkar Narang] got worked!”

Additionally, a 20K was positioned on a crane arm to serve as a hard “sun” source, and Panalux HiLo Softsource fixtures were mounted to the end of a Grip Factory Munich GF-16 Crane, capable of up to a 50' reach, to move around the cockpit as a key light. The newly developed LED light has a progressively adjustable color temperature range between 3,000K and 6,000K. “We were really the first show to put the Panalux HiLo to the test,” Smith says. “They were originally designed to compete with the space light, but we ended up having stirrups made for them and using them on stands as a conventional light.”

Davis adds that the HiLo Softsource is “dimmable without any flicker. I liked [the fixture] so much that I put several of them together and put them through a large frame for a big soft source for key lights for other setups.”

The Guardians also fly the Milano to Knowhere, one of the more unusual settings found in any science-fiction movie. Knowhere isn’t a planet in the proverbial sense, but rather the skull of a long-dead god floating in space. The surface has sprouted a kind of frontier community of prospectors who mine the skull’s yellow cerebral fluid. Because it is in the shadow of a black hole, Knowhere exists in endless night.


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